If “The Man without a Country” now seems minor, it was once a standard American classic, much anthologized, much loved, even. Today I turn to a story I had never heard of, “The Sacristan of St Botolph” (1866) by William Gilbert, the father of half of Gilbert and Sullivan. I came across the story in the prestigious spot it now occupies as the first work in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998) as selected by A. S. Byatt. She says “the end is not fully achieved” (xviii), so I will skip the ending.
A minor clergyman, Geoffrey Cole, believes that he is “so good that the saints alone were his equals” (1). He has the temerity to declare that he would like to experience all of the temptations of Saint Anthony (“’for a month,’” 2) just to “’see if I could not resist them.’”
In fiction, if not in real life, this is asking for trouble, so the next morning the sacristan awakens to find himself in bed with “a large fat pig with a bell fastened round its neck with a leathern strap” (3). The pig sits on Cole’s legs, eats his breakfast, and follows him around, generally making a minor nuisance of himself. I first thought this conceit was merely amusing, but it is really quite clever. Forget pain, seductresses, and offers of wealth – the sacristan cannot even handle the presence of an ordinary barnyard animal.
He then bought sufficient for his breakfast the next morning and afterwards some vegetables for the pig. This last investment, we are obliged to acknowledge with great sorrow, caused him much annoyance. He had a violent objection to spend money on anybody but himself, and although he wished to act the part of an anchorite as closely as he could, he never had heard of one spending money on a dumb animal, and he almost considered it to be a work of supererogation to waste the money as he had done on the pig. However, it was done, and there was no help for it. He sincerely repented his fault, and he could not say more; he would be more cautious another time. (6)
I should mention that there is also an imp hanging around, but its use is purely expository. The imp should have been omitted. It is clear enough that the pig by himself is a great temptation to sin, mostly of the venial kind, admittedly, but enough to dispel the petty hypocrisy of Cole’s aspiration to sainthood.
A subtheme builds as the story proceeds, enough to become something of a twist ending. The story’s sympathy actually lies with the sacristan. He should be annoyed at the pig; he should resent the disruptions of his comforts and ordinary indulgences, his breakfast and wine and flirtations with a “buxom widow.” He should, of course, not be a hypocrite about his trivial sins but rather embrace them.
Byatt, given the task of assembling a book of English stories, “decided to be stringent about the Englishness of the writers” (xv) in terms of both origin and attitude. I guess “The Sacristan of St Botolph” is an example of the latter.